Sex and self-development don't generally seem connected to most people. Certainly, public figures like Anthony Wiener, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tiger Woods don't illustrate how these two powerful forces go together. It took an entire book (Intimacy & Desire) to explain how sex and selfhood are interwoven through millions of years of human evolution. So it's not surprising that brief blog articles require lots of clarification to get this across.
In a prior article I described a couple struggling over expanding their sexual repertoire, trying to underscore subtle changes happening between the partners (here). Perhaps this was too subtle. At least one reader (and probably others) overlooked the differentiation (development of self) process occurring between them, seeing only conventional lock-step reciprocity. Then, my last post discussed how developing a more solid sense of self greatly influences sexual desire (here). Another reader made the common error of approaching "developing a self" as something you do early in adulthood, like being independent and living on your own. I'm sure these readers are not alone, so the resulting clarifications are worth reading. (read here).
Developing a self through struggles around sexual desire is a pretty novel notion. It's an alternative to the common view that lust and desire for your partner inevitably dies in ongoing relationships, and the only solution is to live apart. Rather than the old "absence makes the heart (and genitals) grow fonder" idea, I propose that becoming more emotionally mature is the issue. The upside of my alternative view is it opens new possibilities of long-term intimacy, desire, and sex. The downside is you have to consider the possibility you're not as well-developed and emotionally autonomous as you think you are. Meaning, you're not done yet.
Using sex to becoming a more solid person (less emotionally fused with your partner) is completely backwards from common expectations that the purpose of sex is to feel closer and "become one with your partner." This may sound contradictory to you, but it's not to Mother Nature. This process (called "differentiation") is woven into the fabric of sex and intimacy in ongoing relationships. This means I don't have to convince you to shift your expectations. Your relationship will do it--if you accurately understand what's going on. Sex within ongoing relationships is cunningly designed to disabuse you of the common belief that the primary purpose of adult relationships is to support each other's reflected sense of self and provide "attachment security."
Erroneous common beliefs create problems for normal healthy couples.
For instance, the more you need your partner to prop up your reflected sense of self, the more you get a triple whammy:
- You take what your partner is doing (or not doing) very personally, especially when it comes to differences in sexual desire.
- You're emotionally unnerved when your relationship becomes contentious, which it inevitably will around sex and intimacy.
- You go along and compromise and negotiate on things that maybe you shouldn't, or you force your partner to adapt to you.
Compromise and negotiation is important in marriage, but the solution in many troubled relationships is not to do more of it. People who depend on a reflected sense of self sometimes do it too often, to reduce their anxiety and insecurity. This may keep things stable for the moment, but it has a long-term impact most people don't foresee: Fast forward to a future time where this has happened repeatedly. You've accommodated, negotiated, and compromised so many times to keep the peace, your integrity, identity, self-respect and self-worth are on the line. Staying clear where you end and your partner begins gets real fuzzy. Boundary issues and battles of selfhood become increasingly important and frequent.
What does your sexual desire look like now? It's diminished or non-existent.
We don't like to have sex with people we have to prop up.
Here's another important example: Most of us pick partners who make us feel good about ourselves. This is not just good judgment, lots of us badly need others to validate us and prop up our reflected sense of self. Dependence on your partner's validation affects your sexual desire differently at the beginning of your relationship than it does later on. At the outset, expecting and getting validation and acceptance at every opportunity is an aphrodisiac. Later on it cools your (or your partner's) jets.
Yes, we all like the idea of getting support whenever, however, and as much as we want it. After all, aren't you supposed to be able to count on your partner? Isn't he or she supposed to "be there for you?" The fact that a great many therapists encourage couples to believe these are reasonable expectations makes it harder to realize this can be problematic. To see it, you have to stop thinking your relationship is supposed to be cocoon-like, and realize love relationships are designed to enhance your resilience and turn you into an adult. As Ringo Starr said, "You know it don't come easy."
The lessons are there to be learned if you look at how sex works: Are you sexually attracted to someone you constantly have to prop up? Someone who seems insecure and dependent? NO! Perhaps at first this may turn you on if it makes you feel needed and important in your partner's life. In other words, this may pump up your reflected sense of self. But before long you don't admire or respect your partner because he or she looks needy, weak and immature. Human nature is such that this doesn't inspire lust.
This is why you're probably going to have to choose what you want in your relationship. Do you want a partner who will inflate your ego, tell you you're a good person despite your limitations, listen to all your worries and commiserate with your concerns? It's not too hard to find this person, but it's unlikely he or she going to have a lot of sex with you. And as long as you depend on his or her validation, he or she can get away with it.
Or, do you want to confront, validate, and soothe yourself on an ongoing basis and stop acting like your partner is an extension of you. This means giving up acting like his or her purpose on earth is to drop everything and listen to you, and always make you feel good about yourself. You don't need to be saint-like. You just have stand on your own two feet, and treat your partner like he or she is a separate person with his or her own preferences and agendas. Expecting your partner "to always be there for you," especially when it means sacrificing what he or she wants, is a childish view that overlooks the reality of conflicts of interest in committed relationships.
You can expect anything you want, but if relationships don't work according to your expectations, eventually your sex life will become extinct like the Dodo bird.
© 2011 by Crucible Institute. All rights reserved.